BBC web pages‎ > ‎

Silvio Berlusconi: A Profile

THURSDAY 9th May 2002
A normal Saturday afternoon in the western world, and a man can go to the supermarket, return to his house, read a newspaper, flick between television channels and finally settle down to watch his favourite football team.

All very normal, except in Italy one man provides all these services. They call it Berlusconism. It seems the current Italian Prime Minister has cornered the market in cornering the market.

Silvio Berlusconi is the most influential man in Italy, and a national phenomenon. They call him Il Cavaliere - the Cavalier.

An early entrepreneurial start

His empire-building skills were honed at an early age. He topped up his university funds by selling vacuum cleaners and writing papers for other students. Later he toured with his own band on summer cruise ships. He soon turned his attention to business.

In 1962, Berlusconi founded his own construction company Elinord, and established himself as a residential housing developer around his native Milan. By 1975, his umbrella corporation Fininvest housed some 150 other businesses.

The energetic Italian always had close allies in government but by 1994 Italy was in political paralysis.

Judges had conducted "Operation Clean Hands", scrubbing up the corruptive and bribe-riddled parties in Italian government. Berlusconi decided there was only one thing for it. He went for the top job himself.

"Let's go Italy!"

His Forza Italia was as much a populist movement as a political party. Even the name was borrowed from an AC Milan chant, meaning "Let's go, Italy!"

This permanently-tanned entrepreneur with his yacht, film star wife and beautiful children, successfully presented himself as a man of the people, a self-made worker, who would cut through Italian bureaucracy to help the nation protect their own wealth.

It worked like a dream. In the May 1994 elections, Forza Italia emerged as Italy's largest party, and Berlusconi was prime minister of a coalition government.

From the outset, Berlusconi's various conflicts of interest provoked criticism. This, with the perilous state of the nation's economy, forced the prime minister to resign only 226 days after his jubilant arrival. For cynical observers of Italian governing shenanigans, it was business as usual.

"Only I can turn this country around"

Berlusconi spent the following years organising his party into something more traditional. And by 2001, he was back on his political throne, having waged a masterly election campaign. He was driven, he said, by the knowledge that "only I can turn this country around".

Il Cavaliere has carried on pretty much where he left off. He has fought off all allegations of corruption and Mafiosi connections, and his grip on Italian culture remains vice-like.

Members of Berlusconi's own party dispute claims that their leader is a control freak. Antonio Martino explains that "If you want to use your power for personal gain, you don't put yourself centre stage."

Perhaps not, but while Silvio Berlusconi maintains such an authoritative and expansive economic wand, he will continue to raise questions about his own particular brand of political theatre.